The Life of William Lee
Character Interpreters Brenda Parker shares the story of William Lee.
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William Lee arrived at Mount Vernon in 1768, after George Washington purchased him from Mary Lee, a wealthy Virginia widow, for £61.15s.1 Washington also bought William’s younger brother Frank, who went on to serve as a waiter and butler in the household. Both William and Frank were described as “mulatto,” or mixed race, meaning they were probably the sons of an enslaved mother and a white father. The name “Billy Lee” appears frequently in popular histories and is well known, Washington only referred to his valet by that diminutive until about 1771.
For two decades, William Lee accompanied Washington nearly everywhere. As manservant, or valet, Lee assisted his master with myriad tasks, from delivering messages to laying out clothes to tying a silk ribbon around his hair. An excellent horseman who was described as muscular and athletic, Lee also rode in Washington’s beloved fox hunts.2
William Lee served with Washington throughout the Revolutionary War. He was responsible for organizing the general’s personal affairs, including his voluminous papers, and holding his spyglass. As the attendant to a prominent figure, Lee became a minor celebrity. Postwar visitors to Mount Vernon occasionally sought out the “famed body-servant of the commander-in-chief.
Spending more than seven years in close proximity during the intensity of war seems to have made Washington and Lee’s relationship especially close. The former’s views on slavery shifted significantly during the war, and he emerged with a newfound abhorrence of slavery and a commitment to neither buy nor sell enslaved people and to avoid separating enslaved families. Many factors likely influenced Washington’s evolution, but his close relationship with William Lee may have helped him understand more fully the humanity of those he enslaved.
During the Revolution, Lee married a free black woman named Margaret Thomas from Philadelphia. Thomas had worked for Washington’s household as a seamstress and washerwoman. After the war, Lee asked his owner to bring Thomas to Mount Vernon. Although Washington grumbled that he “never wished to see her more,” he acquiesced, noting that he could not refuse his valet’s request “(if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has lived with me so long and followed my fortunes with fidelity.” There is no evidence, however, that Margaret Thomas ever lived at Mount Vernon. Washington’s correspondence notes that she had been in “ill health,” so she may have passed away before or shortly after arrival.4
In the mid-1780s, William Lee endured several accidents that severely damaged both of his knees.5 Despite his disability, he insisted on traveling to New York to join Washington in the executive household. When his condition worsened on the journey, he was forced to stop in Philadelphia, where doctors fitted him with a steel brace. Washington’s affection for Lee is clear in correspondence between his secretary and agent in Philadelphia as they conferred on Lee’s situation. Washington’s secretary wrote, “if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him altho’ he will be troublesome. He has been an old & faithful Servt. This is enough for the Presidt to gratify him in every reasonable wish.”6
Though a determined Lee finally reached New York two months later, it soon became clear that he was no longer physically able to act as Washington’s valet. He was sent back to Mount Vernon and became the estate’s shoemaker, working in the small cobbler shop behind the greenhouse.7 It is unclear, and perhaps impossible to know, whether Lee’s devotion to Washington stemmed from genuine affection or the desire to maintain a position of relative privilege within the enslaved community.
Washington certainly believed the former. When the retired president died, William Lee was the only enslaved person freed immediately in his will. Washington provided Lee with an annual allowance of $30 for the rest of his life, noting, “this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”8 Lee remained on the estate until his own death in 1810.9 He is believed to be buried in the enslaved cemetery at Mount Vernon.10
George Washington's Mount Vernon
If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington's 1786 and 1799 slave lists: GW, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and“Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)]; the MV slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian.
1. Cash Accounts, May 3, 1768, The George Washington Financial Papers Project. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008), n2.] Though the name “Billy Lee” appears frequently in popular histories and is well known, George Washington only referred to his valet by that diminutive until about 1771. After that date, Washington almost exclusively called him “Will” or “William.” Compare Memorandum, List of Tithables, ca. June 14, 1771, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: Papers of George Washington], which lists “Billy” as a house servant, with Memorandum, List of Tithables, ca. June 10, 1772, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: Papers of George Washington] (and subsequent lists), which record “Will.” There is also evidence that William Lee himself preferred that name. In his will, Washington noted, “And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom”; George Washington, Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: Papers of George Washington].
4. To Clement Biddle, July 28, 1784, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: Papers of George Washington.]
6. Editorial note on Clement Biddle to George Washington, Apr. 22, 1789 includes Tobias Lear to Clement Biddle, May 3, 1789, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: Papers of George Washington.]
7. In 1799 Washington identified “Will” as the shoemaker and described him as “lame”; “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: Papers of George Washington.]
8. Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: Papers of George Washington.]